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3 historic black churches burned down, FBI investigates; members share pain, unite in worship

Days after a “suspicious” fire destroyed the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, Mary Thomas Espree was one of about 80 displaced members who attended a service Sunday morning at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Opelousas, Louisiana.

It was only recently, the 70-year-old told the Advocate, that she had a premonition that the only church she had known throughout her life would have been razed by fire. She had no idea however, it would be so soon.

“I didn’t know it would be so soon, but I knew it would happen,” she said. “The Lord put it in my spirit that it would happen at Mount Pleasant too.”

And when Espree learned of the fire that took her church, it hit her hard. This was where Espree was christened, baptized and married.

“I teared up. There was a lot of hurt. That has been my church all my life,” she told the Daily World.” I was a lost soul and going there has kept me straight. It was like, ‘Why did someone want to burn my church?’”

And that’s what the FBI and other local law enforcement agencies are now seeking to find out, according to CBS News, after Mount Pleasant became the third historically black church over 100 years old to burn down in St. Landry Parish in a span of 10 days last week.

St. Mary’s Baptist Church was the first reported church fire on March 26 and Greater Union Baptist Church went up in flames a week later, NBC News reported.

“The church has been part of me and I am what I became because of the church. I really didn’t know what to do. But I know now the answer is in God’s hands,” Espree told the Daily World Sunday as she tried to console herself as she worshiped.

Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning, who addressed congregants from Mount Pleasant on Sunday, told them after the worship service that, combined with help from the FBI, nearly 200 people are working on the fire investigation.

“Right now, what we have to say is that the fires are suspicious,” Browning told NBC News. “We do believe that crimes have occurred. We believe that the three fires obviously are not coincidental, they are related.”

He noted however that the perpetrators of the fires also gave church members an opportunity to share their faith.

“There’s a reason why I’m standing before you all,” Browning said, according to the Advocate. “Unfortunately, the obvious reason is because there’s been a horrendous crime placed on this church and its people, but I think it’s bigger than that. You see, when this is over with, we’ve now formed a bond, and we’ve formed a purpose. And that higher purpose is to spread the good news of what our creator did to us and what he has in store for us.”

He urged the church members to pray for those who torched their building and that whoever is responsible for the attack would turn themselves in and repent.

“Let’s pray for the people responsible and all the churches that have surrounded and embraced you all,” Browning said. “We’ll get that person a whole lot better help than the justice system will ever get them because we’re going to help them find God, and we’re going to use that to stop this cancer that’s going on that’s executed through crime.”

Pastor Gerald Toussaint, who leads both Morning Star and Mount Pleasant, said the congregations will continue worshiping together until his burnt church is rebuilt.

“It’s sad that our society has stooped this low to do something like that,” Toussaint, 56, told NBC.

At St. Mary’s, some members took it as a sign from God when their Bibles, which were seared, survived the fire.

“I think it’s a sign,” Shameka Mallet, who has been a parishioner at St. Mary’s her entire life, said.

“It’s kind of devastating. My mom was buried here, my grandfather was buried here, and my aunties were married here,” Mallet said.

Despite the devastation however, Toussaint said the tragedy has been a greater catalyst for community.

“This caused us to call each other more than we ever called each other,” he told NBC. “Now we can pull together.”

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